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The Wall Street Journal, "What Now for China Policy?"

An op-ed for The Wall Street Journal on the advances in Chinese strategic weapons technology and the need to better safeguard that of the U.S. 

Mar 15, 1999
AUTHOR: Henry Sokolski

What Now for China Policy?

Every six months or so, a story appears about the Chinese military gaining access to U.S. high technology. The latest of these cases is a whopper. Starting in 1977 and continuing up to the late 1980's, Chinese agents working at Los Alamos national laboratory stole the designs for the neutron bomb and the W-88, the warhead used on America's most sophisticated missile, the submarine-launched, multiple-warhead Trident II.

Why is this story so significant? Because, unlike previous reports, this one indisputably proves that China is modernizing its armed forces with stolen or imported U.S. technology. More important, it shows that China has entered a new era in weapons making: Beijing is suspected of having tested the W-88 design in 1988 and is now using it to develop mobile missiles to penetrate possible missile defenses. As such, something more than hearings or tinkering with export or security procedures is required. This time, we may actually have to examine whether our policy of ever-freer trade in high technology to China makes sense.

Technology Transfers

Up until now Congress has avoided a full review of that policy. Yes, it has examined which supercomputers have gone to which Chinese strategic weapons laboratories, how the Chinese military has spied against the U.S. and how American satellite technology transfers have helped Beijing develop better missiles and military space systems. Last Year the House even questioned whether China was legally qualified to receive U.S. civilian nuclear assistance given its continued military assistance to nations like Iran.

Yet, for all this, the Senate let nuclear cooperation with China proceed. Meanwhile, U.S. exporters not only were allowed to export more advanced computers to China - albeit under slightly different licensing procedures-but, what's far more important, to sell the means for China to make these machines.

As for U.S. Satellite technology, Congress has not yet demanded a change in policy. Instead, it has only been willing to change how this technology is licensed and monitored and by whom (the State Department rather than the Commerce Department). The White House, perhaps feeling the political heat, did finally deny a license for two advanced commercial satellites last month but immediately disavowed this decision's significance by arguing that the denial was a "one off" that would have no effect on U.S.-Chinese space commerce.

Such policy evasion may well continue. Certainly the current focus within the Beltway is not on whether or how our technology transfer policy or foreign policy toward China should be changed, but rather on the relatively narrow political question of blame. Are Presidents Reagan and Bush more culpable for the latest mishap (the theft of the W-88 design occurred on their watch) or is the Clinton administration (which learned of the spying in 1995 but said nothing to Congress and was slow to move against the suspected agent)?

There's even the question of whether the Chinese bought our government's forbearance with political campaign contributions. Did the Chinese try to buy the White House's favor? Probably. But it would be far more useful to recognize that whatever the connections between the Chinese and the White House, none of their business was as significant as the manner in which both Republicans and Democrats have deferred too much to U.S. industry on the question of China policy. What has been lacking isn't simply executive vigilance, but attention to national security when it conflicts with industry's desires for ever expanding high-technology commerce.

Taking this as our point of departure, both Democrats and Republicans should be willing to look at the following substantive issues:

  • Should the U.S. become increasingly dependent upon China's space launch services? China is developing missiles and military space systems targeted against us and our Asian allies, and continues to share missile technology with hostile or unstable nations. But until we have a chance to modernize our own launch capabilities, it would be unfair to U.S. industry to cut off its access to such services for satellite types that have been successfully launched. For these, the Chinese have probably captured all the technology they can. But should our government encourage industry to transfer ever more advanced satellite systems? Even the White House's recent denial of two communications satellites with new, large antennae suggests that the answer is no. Congress and the Executive need to codify this answer.
  • Should the U.S. export not only high-end computers and telecommunications equipment to China, but the means for their production? The debate over what constitutes an advanced computer or telecommunication system may never end but it always is politically embarrassing when some of our most sophisticated machines are found in Chinese weapons laboratories or being used by the People's Liberation Army.
    However what is far more embarrassing and militarily more significant is that the U.S. has been selling China the means to make computers and telecommunications equipment at least as advanced as the units we control. Thus, a year and a half ago, when Congress was debating whether to require export licenses for Chinese-bound U.S. computers capable of 2000 to 7000 million theoretical operations per second, the Chinese announced that they themselves had just produced a computer capable of 13,000 MTOPS. (A personal computer powered by a Pentium II can perform between 300 and 400 MTOPS.) How did this happen? Since the early 1990's the U.S. has sold China billions of dollars in computers, semiconductor manufacturing and testing equipment, digital computer assemblies, silicon lithography machinery (used to make advanced chips), state-of-the art computer production software, etc. The story is much the same in regard to telecommunications where we have allowed our most advanced companies to set up schools to teach the Chinese how to design and produce a vast variety of complex systems. The question Congress and the Executive need to answer is to what extent does selling China such militarily sensitive enabling technology (frequently with taxpayer guaranteed Export-Import Bank loans) make sense?
  • Should the U.S. have an export control policy toward China at all? The last time the government conducted a fundamental review of its technology-transfer policy toward China was 16 years ago. At that time, U.S. officials assessed what strategic capabilities the U.S. could tolerate (or might want) China to acquire to deal with the threat it faced from the Soviet Union. Since then, a great deal has changed: the Soviet Union collapsed, China's military decided to compete against the U.S., and China has exported dangerous strategic technology from North Korea to Algeria. Enough, in short, to merit another look at what our basic technology transfer policy towards China should be.

Rising Prosperity

Of course, ultimately none of these matters can be properly addressed unless we are willing to answer why we might want to control anything sent to Beijing. Is it because we believe that China's rising prosperity will prompt it to become democratic in, say 15 years' time but are frightened that before then it might target us or our Asian friends? If so, policies toward China and the regions need only be fine-tuned to ensure that China's liberalization eclipses its militarization: The time line for democratization needs to be sped up, while the time line for military technological modernization needs to be slowed down.

If, on the other hand, we believe that China is implacably hostile to us, fundamentally undemocratic, and headed for great power- perhaps superpower- status, then truly radical technology controls and dramatic military and foreign policy changes would be in order.

Finally, we might conclude that China will never threaten our interests or friends militarily. In which case, our current policy makes perfect sense. What does not make sense, however, is continuing to evade these questions. That is something we urgently need to correct.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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